The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., opened with little fanfare Monday morning, but the weeklong celebration of the opening — it ends Sunday — will have nothing subtle or quiet about it.
It is a progression that mirrors the history of the Civil Rights movement that King championed and later died for.
Spearheaded by the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which King joined in 1952 as a graduate student at Cornell University, the $120 million King memorial will be the only one on the mall that honors someone other than a president or a war. And it is the only national monument on the mall dedicated to a person of color.
The 32 Lexington-area fraternity members, who sponsor the annual Unity Breakfast in Lexington, helped raise $25,000 for the monument. None of them will be attending the celebrations in Washington this week, however.
James Lee, who recently returned from touring Spain with the American Spiritual Ensemble, said he simply didn't have the money.
"I had planned to go," Lee said. "A bunch of us were going. But I had to back out. I just can't afford it."
Nevertheless, Lee is proud of what his fraternity has accomplished.
In 1983, George Sealy proposed the idea of the memorial to four of his fraternity brothers. The five then presented the idea in 1984 to the fraternity's board of directors, which approved it.
To build the monument in Washington required legislation that must be signed by the President of the United States. In 1996, President Bill Clinton did just that.
What followed were years of wrangling for a prominent position on the mall and the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc., the fraternity's non-profit fund-raising arm. Individuals, corporations and faith-based organizations have contributed more than $114 million, leaving about $6 million more to be raised, according to the foundation's Web site.
A design contest was held, and ground was broken in November 2006.
"This thing just mushroomed," Lee said. "They just saw that this was something that had to be done. They were not thinking 'should we do this?' Our fraternity said, 'We have to do this.'"
Fraternity member Lee Jackson said, "Dr. King, because of his contributions to American history and American society, is very, very worthy of this monument to him."
Jackson — who secured scarce tickets to the dedication because he is a founding member of the memorial foundation — will watch the proceedings on TV.
"Once we put the calculator to it, I just couldn't do it," Jackson said. "It's been a long time coming. King stands out as one of the great Americans."
The battles and pain that led to King's greatness, however, is sometimes glossed over or forgotten, said Daryl Love, an Alpha and a Fayette County Public Schools board member.
Love and his wife recently saw The Help, a movie set in Mississippi in the 1960s featuring life from the viewpoint of the maids. It was a time that Love didn't experience first-hand.
"We have a tendency to forget the past," he said. "We have to have those reminders."
The King memorial, which stands 30 feet high and is inscribed with the words "Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope," will be a permanent reminder of the difficulty of traveling the road to the present, he said.
"Is freedom free? No, it comes at a price," Love said. "If a group of citizens comes together, change will happen, but it has a price."
The King memorial sits between memorials for Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator, and Thomas Jefferson, an author of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to the sculpture of King, there is a 450-foot granite wall featuring 14 quotes from King that were selected by a panel.
In addition to the humble start of the celebrations this week, there is other symbolism in the memorial. The address is 1964 Independence Ave., a reference to the year the Civil Rights Act was passed.
The weeklong ceremony will end Sunday, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington and King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The dedication will begin at 11 a.m., and President Barack Obama is one of the scheduled speakers.
Jackson wants all of Lexington to join him in watching the ceremonies because we all have benefited from King's efforts toward equality. I agree.
BET has one hour of the dedication scheduled for noon Sunday.
A representative at C-Span, however, said although the network probably would broadcast the dedication, he could not confirm that as of the deadline for this column.